In which I waste hours of precious life streaming a movie that is free or very cheap.
What lured me in?
When I was 10, HBO played a promo for this movie and I blew a gasket. It looked like another Star Wars! I loved Star Wars; the family dog mattered less to me than Star Wars. So I had to see this. I got permission to stay up late on one of the only nights it was scheduled, and…
It was weird and boring! But I couldn’t admit that. I was too invested. At the same time, it burned images/ideas into my head that I still think about. So it was a formative piece of junk. A weird, boring junk-star I have steered by for 30 years, although it’s also true that I’ve remembered very few specifics.
So How Far Off-Course Am I? Let’s Find Out!
The plot is what you’d expect. A peaceful planet is about to be conquered by an evil galactic bad guy, and an ordinary farmboy volunteers to stop him.
The whole planet possesses but one spaceship, which is never really explained. I guess somewhere on Earth there’s a country that knows all about cars, but has only one car? And no one knows how to drive it, but it’s well maintained? Look, just go with this. Why there is but one spaceship is the least of your worries, because that spaceship also is named Nell, and she talks, and is sassy.
At 10, I was oblivious to the boobs; I just thought it was the stupidest spaceship in history (which it is). Yet this is what Farmboy flies around the galaxy in, enlisting helpers to come defend Akir before evil Sador returns to accept its surrender or incinerate it (“I will return in seven risings of your red giant”).
“Opposing Sador would be suicide!” everyone potential helper agrees, right before concluding “Sign me up.” As an adult, there is juuust enough propellant in seeing the script give each alien a unique reason to Join the Cause—but Kid Me didn’t care. “Of course everyone wants to fight for defenseless, impoverished Akir! Why wouldn’t they?? Skip to the CATASTROPHIC WAR WITH LASERS!”
Fine, we’ll get there—first, though, what helpers does Shad (for that is Farmboy’s name) enlist? Let’s talk about the cast, because you will wonder how they had any money left for adequate special effects (generous description) when you check out this cavalcade of stars:
In other words, STARTLING FACT: This cut-rate goober in theory has a cast every bit as good as the cast of Star Wars. Even Sybil Danning is enjoyable despite the B-movie indignities heaped upon her.
Honestly, while most of the movie makes 65 to 80 percent sense, the Sybil Danning plotline makes zero. Farmboy is desperate for help and she offers it, but he’s all “Buzz off, lady!” He has no patience because her ship has tiny weapons. Which, on that, two points: 1) She’s a warrior from a warrior race, so… huh? Is hers a warrior race that enjoys the challenge of unarmed combat? Whatever, doesn’t matter, because 2) Her ship is very fast, which any dingleberry can see would have its uses. Even Nell advises Farmboy, “Sybil’s ship is fast—maybe include her.” But nooo, Farmboy is all, “Pipe down, Nell, you’re
a wise AI one million times better-informed than me just a bucket of bolts!” Oof, sometimes this kid is the biggest dumb-dumb who ever dumbed a space dumb. I’m starting to think Akir could use a good space-dictator to star-whip it into that’s-no-moon-shape.
At least Farmboy treats Cowboy a little better. Kid Me loved the concept of Cowboy (a cowboy! In SPACE!) even though it was frustrating that he didn’t do much. Related: Adult Me is noticing that George Peppard is feeling very sorry for himself that he’s in this. “I played Audrey Hepburn’s boyfriend in ’61, you know,” he seems to be thinking while he delivers lines like “I’m from Earth. Ever heard of it?” A few moments he finds interesting, and he dips into subtle realism, just for a second—it’s startling. Then at points he veers out to ham. Honestly, ham is what’s called for! Be hammier, George! Or at least look alive. There’s one battle scene that he walks into, and I don’t mean conveying a sense of “Cowboy is too laconic to duck or hustle.” More like “These A-holes are not paying me enough to give a—shit, did they say action already? I missed it. I just want to finish my jelly donut.”
Anyway, despite how ordinary Farmboy is, his mission to enlist helpers is a success: Cowboy agrees to help, Ms. Danning tags along, a flying saucer full of white-makeupped good guys volunteers…
Finally, we launch the CATASTROPHIC WAR WITH LASERS.
There’s lots of catastrophe. The final battle is super long, i.e., forever. (By the way, it makes no sense. I cannot follow Sador’s strategy. He says he’ll incinerate the planet from orbit, and then lands ground troops? What?) But as a kid, how did I not fall for it? How did I not decide this was THE most exciting movie, given its fucking interminable action?
Basically because the thrills are mismanaged.
Allow me to explain via animated gif comparison. As you recall, Star Wars takes out Alderaan with a single Holy Cow punch:
Battle Beyond the Stars takes out Alderaan too—using the “Stellar Converter.” Just as bang-zoom jaw-dropping?!? You tell me:
I dunno, look, there’s a lot that’s inventive here, and a lot that’s lame and sad.
If You Want to Walk in My Footsteps
Watch this when you are 10. It is so tediously bolted together that it will alert you to certain “universal truths” that are harder to catch in more seamless movies—I mean, Han Solo is also a space cowboy, but not as obviously as Cowboy. And once these truths tip their hand here, you will start seeing them everywhere. Villains are fatally arrogant! Wiser people will help innocent farmboys—and usually get killed for it! Sometimes a plot is just the hero collecting a series of things?? When your luck is at its low point, that’s also when you should be at your most noble—maybe even idiotically so! These are the building blocks of Western Civilization.
The full movie is on YouTube. Experience it as an adult and it’s actually more enjoyable than it was at 10, but there is also every chance you will end up on an emotional and psychological journey like mine: After adult-viewing Battle Beyond the Stars, and even while viewing most scenes, I felt in my heart the tingle of an existential dread that I am wasting my time on Earth, voluntarily living as a dimwitted manchild in a foggy swamp of kitsch lacking all soul and promise. Other scenes were good! In particular the Robert Vaughn bits.